Nightcrawler was released in 2014, and since then has, very unfortunately, become more and more prescient in its understanding of the escalation of news and the complicated relationship we form with documentation of life.
That was a fun sentence… here is what I mean…
Nightcrawler displays subtle genius in the scenario it uses to comment on news and an individual’s fascination with documentation (before Instagram influencers blew up the world mind you). It uses a profession most of us haven’t thought about, nightcrawling, a vital part of the news cycle, and they place in that job the perfect type of person, a pushy, socially unaware huckster, Lou Bloom.
Lou Bloom serves as a criticism of our current obsession with filming the world, with capturing its best, and in this case, most horrible moments. And how that non-interactive interaction can become a need. And that need can become harder and harder to fill. The main character trait Bloom portrays as he haggles with construction workers over stolen metal and video tapes accidents on the highway is his lack of understanding of social and ethical boundaries. From the moment we hear his measured speaking cadence bubble forth with such precision, we think something isn’t quite right with him. By the time we see him butt his way bast EMTs in order to film a bloody car accident victim, we are certain of it.
And yet this is the pit every fan of online videos and media can fall into. A blurring of ethical boundaries between what could be filmed and released, and what should be. As videos continue to surface online that are both shocking in nature and helpful for public discourse, boundaries seem to be less and less useful. On top of that, the millions of dollars of revenue flowing through people’s bank accounts due to the documentation and streaming of their personal lives leave little room for argument about what is acceptable or unacceptable to film and share.
Thus, Lou Bloom becomes an archetype, a streamlined escalation of the subtle blurring between reality and the portrayal of that reality, between appropriate and inappropriate, moral and immoral. And we witness his slow decline into this oblivion, starting with when he arrives at a car crash before the ambulance for the first time. He struggles for his shot, trying to get the image that will earn him the most money, hoping to capture it all before anyone else can come in and scoop it out of his hands, the spirit of his job forgotten amidst what those who dictate his success demand. And with no thought, he grabs the (seemingly) dead man by the legs and drags him to a better position for his camera’s framing. Just like that, his job becomes something else. This is no longer the documentation of the tragedy in the world he inhabits, but it becomes the creation of a narrative around these events, a way to frame them, a story to tell about the reality, like a director, or in a more modern context, an influencer.
But this influencer is influencing public opinion on events in the local news rather than what baggy sweatshirt to wear over biking shorts, and so the stakes are much higher. Enter Bloom’s very strange relationship with Nina, the TV news editor.
Nina’s job is ostensibly to tell the news. In reality, her job is to get eyeballs. Because Nina doesn’t get fired for not telling the news, she gets fired for not getting viewers. So the cycle perpetuates itself, Nina needs Lou to get footage that will shock people so that they will tune in. So Lou manufactures footage in order to shock people. So Nina becomes dependent on Lou’s footage and, subsequently, Lou. And therefore they develop a pseudo-sexual connection to each other based on a relationship of need and the thrill of the hunt for the craziest news story possible.
Nothing captures the awkwardness and intensity of this relationship better than when Lou and Nina, framing a TV, watch Lou’s footage of a shooting where a cop is killed. Nina’s breathy voice extolls how incredible the footage is. Lou asks her if she wants it, Nina states that obviously she does. They look at each other, close enough to kiss. Everyone watching becomes awkward and confused.
But this off-putting relationship with all its awkwardness and manipulation is the embodiment of our relationship to news and media, and news and media’s relationship to what is happening in the world. It starts out as something innocent, even wholesome, videotaping of real events for the purpose of informing the public, but in its end phenomena the levers that actually move this relationship, money, intrigue, fear, and careers will always mutate it into a broken system beyond repair.
Nina and Lou start out business-like, then become cordial, then as partners, and eventually Lou’s power over Nina becomes his means to completely control her money, career, and sexuality. It’s disgusting and uncomfortable, but it is an attempt to reflect the flaws in the way the news works.
And it also shows the type of people who make it happen. When Rick, the bumbling yet grounded homless assistant, finally gets his performance review, and the relief of his positive feedback gets him to finally share his opinions of Lou to Lou, he tells him that he just doesn’t understand people, and that Lou is awkward and off-putting. Later on, so much so that it speaks to how much those words affected him, Lou tells Rick that maybe he is the way he is, not because he doesn’t understand people, but because he doesn’t like them.
It is hard not to run with this diagnosis and apply it to all those people we know whose noses are always in their phones, or are constantly posting and reposting online, and consider that maybe their lack of social skills is not due to a misunderstanding but to a dislike of their fellow man.
It is hard not to consider our obsession with watching death and blood and fear in news-form and wonder if maybe it is due to a hatred for those on the screen.
But maybe that is taking it too far, maybe my brain is interpreting that scene with too heavy a hand. At the very least, Lou Bloom as he pushes his way past EMTs and police officers, and manipulates dead bodies and films moments with no regard for ethics and morality, is telling us that he wasn’t unaware of his transgressions, he just didn’t think enough of the people he was transgressing against in order to stop.
We all see a disconnect develop in the space between a screen and a face, but adequately defining that disconnect is much harder. Is it a social awkwardness? A protective mechanism? A support system for our social anxiety? Or maybe they forget about the humans in their screens whose lives are being documented. Maybe they stop caring about the human.
Psychological thrillers rarely come with easy talking points. Nightcrawler is no exception, giving us an intense example of one man’s decline into a world we all inhabit in at least some capacity. And the grossness of what he does while he is there leaves room for all of us to question motivations, intent, and consequences to that which we consume.
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